Reviewed by Tom Little
Turkey is undergoing a quiet revolution; once considered an underdeveloped backwater on the edge of Europe, the country is now one of the key players in the Middle East and beyond. Prime Minister Receb Tayyeb Erdogan’s ruling AK Parti is seen as a model for progressive Islamism across the world, and the statesman’s interventions in the Arab Spring, Somalia’s famine and Israel’s blockade of Gaza are testament to the country’s growing importance on the international stage.
With this in mind, the demand for a clear, readable history of the country is greater than ever and Norman Stone’s recent publication, Turkey: A Short History, seems to fit the bill perfectly. The author, a respected historian with a number of well-received titles to his name, is currently a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara and has an intimate knowledge of the history of his adopted home.
Stone’s beautifully presented (not to judge a book by its cover, of course) and slender tome aims to guide the reader through the intricacies of the history of the Turkish peoples, from their origins in Central Asia to Erdogan’s first years in power at the beginning of the twenty-first century, covering the glory of the Ottoman Empire, the squalor after its collapse in 1918 and the beginnings of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
The majority of the book deals with the period when the Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul after 1453, ruled the Middle East and the Balkans. The age conjures up images of intrigues, harems, despotic sultans and the empire’s warrior-slaves, the Janissaries. Stone does little to dispel these images, painting a vivid picture of courtly life in the imperial city of Istanbul. He gives a fine account of the empire as it slipped from grandeur into a slow decline from the 17th century onwards before its eventual demise at the end of the First World War; change coming to the Ottoman Empire at an apparently glacial pace. Stone is a witty and entertaining guide to the topic, and his history comes replete with humorous anecdotes and titbits to keep the reader interested even when Ottoman court politics are at their most labyrinthine.
Turkey: A Short History also covers the country’s relations with its European neighbours. It is true that Turkish history has been strongly influenced by its neighbours to the West; first the Byzantine Empire, then Venice, Genoa and the Franks in the Middle Ages, followed by Britain, Russia, France and Germany from the 19th century onwards. Stone places great emphasis on Turkey’s metropolitan, even multicultural, background although he focuses too much on foreigners’ roles in the country’s past and at times the book feels more like a history of Turkey’s relations with Europe rather than a history of the country in its own right. Stone’s section on the modern Turkish Republic, which is bound to be of interest to many readers today, is also a little short on detail and the author’s treatment of the Armenians is bound to raise some hackles too.
Turkey: A Short History is far from a comprehensive account of the country. Nevertheless the book is an insightful introduction to its history; perfect to carry with you as you explore the back streets of Istanbul or a as a starting point for a more detailed study, especially when considered that the author includes a fantastic reading list covering all the topics he broaches.